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Clinton Maintains Approval Ratings Despite Hearings

By Jonathan Peterson
Los Angeles Times

Despite a barrage of unseemly revelations about his party's political fund-raising, President Clinton has retained a lofty job-approval rating of 63 percent, while Vice President Gore's image has been tarnished by the negative publicity, according to the Los Angeles Times Poll.

Almost seven in 10 Americans hold Clinton responsible for fund-raising excesses that have been exposed by the media and in congressional hearings. Yet it is Gore, who has been embarrassed by disclosures about his telephone solicitations and participation in a Buddhist temple fund-raiser, who may be paying the larger price politically.

Just 34 percent of survey respondents reported a "favorable impression" of the vice president, compared to 59 percent for Clinton.

The national survey of 1,258 adults was conducted Sept. 69, a period when the news was filled with the stories about Gore's fund-raising woes and a Senate panel was gearing up for a new round of hearings. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.

"Even with all the allegations swirling around Clinton, people still like him," said Susan Pinkus, director of The Times Poll. By contrast, she added, fund-raising embarrassments "are chipping away at Gore's image."

More broadly, the Times findings underscored strong cross-currents within an American public that is increasingly upbeat about the country's general path, even as it views the political finance system with distaste and harbors mixed feelings about the Clinton administration.

Those surveyed described crime, drugs, homelessness, education and a decline in morality as the worst problems facing the country.

But more than seven in 10 - 73 percent - said the United States economy was doing well; just 25 percent disagreed. In addition, 42 percent said the nation was moving along the "right track," while 47 percent took a more negative view.

While that finding may be less than euphoric, it is the most positive response to the right-track question in a Times Poll since 1991.

Such numbers may hold at least part of the key to understanding the president's high popularity ratings at a time when nearly half the public believes he personally knew of questionable political donations in the 1996 campaign - and 68 percent hold him responsible for fund-raising excesses. Among those who said the nation was on the right track, for example, 76 percent expressed approval of Clinton's performance in the White House.

Clinton's approval rating also may reflect views that he is "in touch with the public and how things are going in the country," said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst in Washington.

For Gore, who until recently enjoyed a nearly pristine image with the public, the poll results could be sobering. According to the survey, 42 percent of political independents and 24 percent of Democrats - two groups that are vital to Gore's future political success - view him less favorably in light of recent allegations. (Some 46 percent of Republicans also view him less favorably.)

Only about half of Democrats - 48 percent - said they held a favorable impression of the vice president, numbers that could undermine the view that he is virtually assured of his party's nomination for president in 2000. Some 32 percent of independents and 25 percent of Republicans reported a favorable impression.

The Times' finding of a 34 percent favorable rating for Gore was markedly lower than some other surveys, such as a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll that was concluded two days earlier and reported a 55 percent favorable opinion for the vice president. But the newer poll possibly could reflect a very recent drop-off of support amid ongoing publicity from Senate hearings.

On Wednesday, for example, a survey for ABC News found that 49 percent questioned whether the vice president had the honesty and integrity to be president, a slip of 10 percentage points from March. The number saying he lacked such traits jumped to 40 percent from 32 percent.

The Times Poll suggests that such doubts resonate with many who had focused very little attention on Gore prior to his current episode in the public spotlight.

In the poll, the public expressed a decided range of opinion about various fund-raising disclosures.

Of those who would blame just one of the major parties for seeking foreign money, the Democratic Party that is most widely cited, with a fifth blaming Democrats alone and just two percent pointing to the GOP.